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Has the stock rally restored America's wealth?
U.S. households have recovered the $16 trillion they lost when the economy tanked
The Miami International Boat Show: Are Americans feeling richer?
The Miami International Boat Show: Are Americans feeling richer? Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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hanks to surging stock prices and improving home prices, Americans have nearly recovered the $16 trillion in wealth that went "poof" in the Great Recession. The Federal Reserve reported Thursday that household wealth totaled $66.1 trillion at the end of 2012, up from a nadir of $51.9 trillion in 2009. Households now have 98 percent of what they had at the peak before the financial crisis — so is it time to celebrate the end of hard times?

It really does look like "American consumers' belt-tightening is finally coming to an end," says Neil Shah at The Wall Street Journal. For four years, Americans have "repaired their balance sheets from the damage of the housing crash and recession." They're looking at their portfolios and realizing the worst is behind them. They're "becoming more comfortable borrowing" — and, most importantly for the economy, spending.

If Americans feel wealthier because stocks are going up and home prices are on the rise, they are likely to feel that their debt is less of a burden. They may also be more willing to borrow and spend, pumping up the economy...

The stock-market recovery is also making some Americans feel more flush. The value of stocks owned by households rose over $150 billion in the fourth quarter, even as the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 2.5 percent during the period — reflecting rising prices of foreign stocks and more investors moving into stocks in general after shying away. The stock market has seen substantial gains since then — the Dow is up over 9 percent this year, at a record high — suggesting household balance sheets have improved further. [Wall Street Journal]

True, but there's a catch. Not everyone's wealth is back. Since most of the gains come from the recent run-up in the stock market, most of it is flowing to the rich. The wealth of the middle class stems mostly from the equity they have in their homes, and the housing market is only beginning to bounce back. The wealthy are less likely than lower-income households to spend the money they earn right away, so "the recovered wealth might spur less consumer spending than it did before the recession," says Christopher S. Rugaber at The Associated Press. Furthermore, homeowners bitten by the housing market crash are wary of using their assets to borrow more money.

Dana Saporta, an economist at Credit Suisse, notes that Americans are now less likely to use the equity in their homes to fuel spending. The value of home equity Americans are cashing out has fallen 90 percent in six years, she said.

And since the housing bust, when home values fell broadly for the first time in decades, many homeowners are skeptical that higher prices will last, Saporta said. They won't necessarily spend more as a result. [Associated Press]

Take the good news with a healthy dose of skepticism, warns Zero Hedge. If the last few years have taught us anything, it's that what goes up can come down. Way down. And the troubling thing about these new figures is that "the U.S. household's net worth has never been more reliant on the stock market," which means consumers are at the mercy of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke "and his centrally printing colleagues around the world."

Should the central banks pull the $15 trillion in house of cards props, everyone, and especially those whose net worth is concentrated in marked to fantasy financial assets on margin, will be wiped out.

Stockholm syndrome anyone? [Zero Hedge

Harold Maass is a contributing editor at TheWeek.com. He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami HeraldFox News, and ABC News.

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